serious thought—no matter what your age. Your family and friends have gathered
to honor your life. But what do you leave behind? Beyond the contents of your
last will and testament, what part of you remains on earth even after you've
Your legacy. It's something you create during your life solely to benefit
future generations, something you may never see come to fruition. Just like a
farmer who plants a tree knowing he'll never live to taste its fruits, a legacy
is a gift you leave behind without expecting anything in return. Think of John
F. Kennedy and the space program or Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights.
They died before their legacies were fulfilled, but they will be forever revered
for their efforts.
Just like that farmer's sprouting tree, legacies don't happen overnight—and
they don't happen by accident. They're deliberately crafted over years of hard
work and dedication. But you don't have to give up your worldly possessions and
become a Mother Teresa to start building your legacy now. Here's how.
Understand your legacy.
First, you need to really grasp why it's important to leave a legacy in the
"The legacy we leave is part of the ongoing foundations of life," says
business philosopher and author Jim Rohn. "Those who came before leave us the
world we live in. Those who will come after will have only what we leave them.
We are stewards of this world, and we have a calling in our lives to leave it
better than how we found it, even if it seems like such a small part."
Look back on your own life, and you'll see legacy-leavers everywhere, from
the founding fathers of our nation to your parents, former teachers and elder
family members. All of these people left you with instructions on how to
live—for better or for worse. And now it's your turn to decide what kind of
legacy you'll leave for posterity.
Choose your legacy.
Legacies come in different shapes and forms, requiring varying levels of
effort and commitment. Some choose to leave financial legacies, supporting
causes such as funding breast cancer research or a new building at one's alma
mater. Other legacies are institutional, like when somebody founds a nonprofit
or builds a business that's a positive force in the community. All of these
examples have their value and place in society.
Yet, in his The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell believes in a third, more
lasting avenue of legacy. "Too often, leaders put their energy into
organizations, buildings, systems or other lifeless objects," says the
leadership expert and bestselling author. "But only people live on after we are
gone. Everything else is temporary."
Gerontologist and author Ken Dychtwald reached a similar conclusion in a
recent survey focusing on elder generations and their baby boomer children. He
and colleagues at his company, Age Wave, discovered four "pillars of legacy":
values and life lessons, instructions and wishes to be fulfilled, possessions of
emotional value, and property and money. When asked which pillar meant the most
to them, both groups answered resoundingly: values and life lessons.
"There's this enormous craving, this desire for people in their maturity to
share what they've learned, to pass on lessons of a lifetime, to teach, to feel
that their life experience is being invested, even planted, into the field of
tomorrow," Dychtwald says. "There was also a similar response—a natural, innate
appetite on the part of younger generations—to receive that."
Focus your legacy.
Granted, conveying the accumulated lessons of a lifetime is easier said than
done. In deciding exactly what you want to put out into the world, look inward
Start by identifying your strengths. The most obvious place to look is your
career—but don't just focus on your job title, Dychtwald says. "You are trained
to think of your skills and talents as what you do at work," he says in his
latest book With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and
Life. "But if you think of them as core strengths instead, you can begin to
see how they are more widely applicable. Youâ??re not just an administrative
assistant; you're someone who gets things done. You're not jut a retail manager;
you're someone who can spot the strengths in others and suit them to the
Talk to your colleagues, friends and family members for their insight. Keep
a running list, and see which strengths come up most frequently. Often, others
see our gifts more clearly than we do.
Also, consider what topics and activities you're passionate about and that
you find interesting. "Think about how you spend your time," Dychtwald says.
"Most of us tend to be drawn—either directly or indirectly—to the settings,
activities and people that allow us to express our interests."
In short, your legacy should be a labor of love—not a chore.
Next, use the findings from your introspection to establish a "life
sentence." Writer and politician Clare Boothe Luce embraced this idea of "a
statement summarizing the goal and purpose of one's life," says Maxwell. His own
statement has changed over time—from "I want to be a great pastor" to "I want to
be a great communicator"— but he thinks that he's finally settled on a winner.
"My life sentence is, 'I want to add value to leaders who will multiply value to
This statement is important because it "not only sets the direction for your
life but it also determines the legacy you will leave," he says. Focus on your
life sentence throughout your journey, and use it to keep you on track.
Live your legacy.
Now that you have a plan of action, it's time to implement it. "What must
you change in the way you conduct yourself so that you live that legacy?"
Maxwell asks. "Your list may include behavioral changes, character development,
education, working methods, relationship-building style and so on. Only by
changing the way you live will you be able to create the legacy you want to
Both Maxwell and Dychtwald compare the act of leaving a legacy to passing a
baton. "If you've ever watched a relay race, the most important moment of the
race is the passing of the baton," Dychtwald says. "The art of handing off that
baton is quite spectacular when it's done well. In our society, we don't put
that much credence on sitting at the feet of our elders and allowing them to
transfer to us the legacy of their lives. And I think that's a great loss."
So, now that you're in the role of the elder, the baton-passer, who will be
the recipient? Who will you invite to sit at your feet? Picture your life—and
the people in it—as a succession of increasingly larger rings reaching out from
a center point: you. Now think about how you can impart your legacy upon the
people of those rings, starting with your family. Both your actions and words
leave a legacy behind for your children and younger family members, so make sure
that you lead by example as well as by what you say. As they grow older, these
younger generations will likely seek your wisdom and want to hear about your
life experiences. Share the lessons that have meant the most to you.
For many, the next ring outward is one's primary occupation. Think about
whom you could mentor in your work environment and how. Which of your core
strengths could benefit others in their pursuit of success? Where do you see
unrealized potential, and how can you unleash it?
Many might think that today's cutthroat business environment isn't the place
for cultivating such relationships—but Dychtwald disagrees. "The soul of
American capitalism is, in its heart, enormously generous of spirit," he says.
"This idea that business shouldn't solely be about profit-making but
contributing to people's lives and trading wisdom, trading positive experiences,
has largely been covered over for decades.
"The culture of work has largely become fragmented by people trying to serve
their own needs and short-term loyalties. I think there's much legacy that can
be accomplished with your work team, with the way people relate to each other,
joining forces with the idea of people coming together to do something
Next, look even farther outward (perhaps even outside your comfort zone) to
how you can benefit strangers through different groups and organizations. New
York City lawyer Matthew Weiss does just that. For the past nine years, Weiss
has been a member of the nonprofit Entrepreneurs' Organization, mentoring
up-and-coming businesspeople and networking with other small-business owners
(Weiss's eponymous law firm is the third company he has started).
"I'm always looking to help other people with what they need," he says. "I
meet someone and I want to know, 'What are your challenges in your business?
What are your challenges in your life?' And I try and put people together to
solve those problems."
Weiss says even when he doubts how useful he can be to the 20- and
30-something entrepreneurs whom he mentors, he's always surprised how his advice
can make a difference.
"I didn't realize how much value I had to offer them and the clarity I could
provide when they're trying to figure out what their issue might be or how to
overcome the issue," says the husband and father of three. "Watching their faces
light up when I give them what I think is a pretty simple answer...for me, it's
really rewarding to watch that 'light bulb' moment occur."
And, after all, isn't that what it's all about—that "light bulb" moment,
illuminating the lives of generations to come, helping them navigate the road
ahead? Dychtwald thinks so.
"What's the purpose of having 60, 80, 100 years of life?" he asks. "It's not
just to have an enormous wealth of experiences. But I think it's to have time
and energy and the resources to teach, to give it back. [Developmental
psychologist Erik] Erikson had this great quote: 'I am what survives of me.'
That's really a very different sort of battle cry. Stepping out of one's moment
in time and thinking about oneself in the chain of development from generation
to generation and being motivated to not only make something of oneself—but to